Today is Valentine’s Day. Ever since my girls were little, I gave them flowers, candy, or valentines on this day, so I could model how guys treat girls (even though my wife and I have a secret aversion to Valentine’s Day, thinking it “forced romance day” created by card and flower companies-which, incidentally, puts pressure on me to actually show her I love her on days that aren’t Valentine’s Day).  I love my kids and my family, though, and days like this are a great day to show it.

But, can we love our families, our kids too much?  The answer to that question is that we absolutely can, and most of us often do. Russell Moore has written a great new book called The Storm-Tossed Family. In it, he notes that excessive love for the family is one of the subtlest idolatries in today’s church. He notes that a church that focuses on the family is in line with the Bible, but one that puts families first is not.

Since Genesis 1, God intended the family to be the foundational organizing structure of human society. He intended it to not only be a source of practical and economic survival, but comfort, encouragement, strength, and the passing down of love for Him from one generation to the next.  But, He was always intended to be utmost in our affections, the source of our value, worth, and security. That’s what we were created to need. When God and people lived in perfect relationship, people could live in perfect, rightly-ordered relationship with their families, as well. When people broke their relationship with God through sin, people started looking to all kinds of things to fill the void left by their estrangement with God. They no longer found security, safety, worth, and value in Him, and they have been looking to everything else around them to fill that void ever since then.  Primary void-fillers include those things and people closest to them. Another name for “void-fillers,” things and people that God created, good things that we make ultimate things, are “idols.”  And, one of our biggest idols are the people closest to us, our family.

I was having a discussion with a friend of mine this morning, who is having father-in-law issues. His father-in-law is not a follower of Jesus, and wants a kind of relationship with his daughter, my friend’s wife, that is way too clingy and not appropriately detached for his daughter’s new role as an adult, married female with children. His father-in-law is looking for his daughter to fill the void in his life that no one but Jesus can fill. No one was created to fill that void. His daughter’s natural response to her dad’s clinginess is to be repelled by it and to draw away from it. This, of course, causes her dad to press into it further, which is causing all kinds of dysfunction and disharmony in their family.  Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? If that specific situation doesn’t describe your family, I’ll be you have a similar dysfunction, with a similar source.

And, this isn’t a problem limited to adult relationships. It’s probably worse when showering smothering love on our young children and teenagers. When we turn down opportunities to serve others because it presses in to “family time”, or stress out too much about whether we have them in all the right activities, or whether people are always being nice to them, or that they’re being constantly showered with praise (whether they earn it, or not) it may be (not always, but often) evidence that we’re idolizing our families. Kids need to know that they’re important to you and beloved, and that they are a priority, but they also need to know they’re not the center of your universe, your idol. They make really bad gods, as do we all. On the contrary, it is really good and healthy for them to know that, sometimes, you’re going to miss one of their games or activities because you’re serving someone else as an act of worship of the Lord. Sometimes it’s good to take them with you to watch you do that, or to do it together. It’s good for kids to be told “no,” to be told they’re acting stinky when they’re stinky, to have unstructured time and not be scheduled to death (like you), and to be walked through most difficult friend conflicts rather than delivered from them. Kids need to know that the Lord is the center of your universe; not your spouse, and not them.

Anything we idolize that isn’t God, anything we place our hopes, our trust, our security, our worth, our dreams, and our value in that isn’t God, is devastating for us and for the object or subject of our worship. In this job, I’ve watched a lot of parents raise their kids, and I’ve seen how they turn out. I can tell you this with confidence: kids who grow up knowing they’re loved by their parents, but are not their parents’ idols, not the center of their universe, grow up to be well adjusted and rightly ordered, and have a much better chance at a healthy relationship with Jesus and those around them, than those who are the center of their parents’ universe. Unfortunately, those turn out as fragile snowflakes or insufferable, self-centered prigs who no one can stand to be around. But, God’s really gracious and often brings those around, too. It’s just way, way harder and more painful for them.

The most loving thing you can do for your kids is not loving them too much.

Jay Ferguson, PhD, writes regularly on his blog, The Head and The Heart.